“Running a lab is like running a business, but most labs are poorly run businesses – they throw money out the window.” – paraphrasing an article I saw in my campus periodical, the University Gazette.
That’s it, door 1 or door 2.
For door 1, generating more grants used to be a viable option, but that keeps getting harder and harder to do. Many researchers are struggling just to maintain consistent funding, so expansion is out of the question for many. Grant funding is getting ever more scarce, and with the recent political changes in the US, the chance of increased science budgets in the near future is slim to none.
On the other hand, door 2 remains highly under-appreciated and underutilized. If you could operate your lab 20% more efficiently, let’s think about the implications of that in terms of your overall budget for people, supplies, and equipment:
Say you have a single R01 grant funding your lab right now at $200k/yr in direct costs (a relatively modest budget for a research lab).
Twenty percent of $200k/yr is $40k/yr. That’s enough money for:
– Two additional undergrad students (possibly three) working part time in your lab
– One additional graduate student, with leftover budget for supplies
– An advanced liquid chromatography instrument, or a centrifuge (lightly used)
The take-home message is that a relatively small increase in efficiency (20%) leads to significant gains in overall cash available to do more and better work. It is not chump change, and can make a real difference.
But the question is, how do we achieve that modest 20% gain? If it were so easy, wouldn’t everyone be doing it?
I ask you to think about how organized your lab is. How much time do you or your people spend searching for samples? How much time do you spend showing new people in the lab where stuff is, and training them on your procedures and protocols? Think about how quickly new people are at getting up to speed, and how efficient your existing personnel are… What if you could substantially reduce those kind of inefficiencies? It is not farfetched.
It does surprise me that “not everyone is doing it” – but I think years of expanding science budgets made it a bit too easy to focus on getting more money rather than maximally using the money that we have. With expanding science budgets far from assured, I predict a future where many labs are going to be turning to improved efficiency as an alternative approach. Those that do will likely get ahead.
Here’s an example: my department inventoried chemicals a few years ago, and we found a huge volume of a particular solvent in each lab, far more than we could ever use up. There were vastly redundant supplies of this chemical because nobody had a good tracking system to know who had what and where they had it. If there had been some kind of tracking in place, it would have saved thousands of dollars worth of this costly solvent. That is one example of many I’ve seen. Each one may be a small bit of money – but small bits of money have a way of adding up into big chunk of money.
You’re with me on this, right? Improving the efficiency of your lab’s operation boils down to:
1. Better communication, so that the people that need to get up to speed on new protocols aren’t held up and can get going on their jobs quickly and efficiently
2. Improved tracking of milestones and accomplishments, so you can hold people more accountable (this is really important!)
3. Better organization of your samples and supplies, so you know what you have, where it is located, and when you need more.
If you’re like me, you may look at this list and say, “well, that’s nice, but HOW do I do those things?” I used to think that this kind of stuff was only for those who aren’t organizationally challenged (like I am). I simply didn’t have the willpower to implement strong organizational systems in my lab.
But here’s the big bonus for organizationally dysfunctional folks like me: the advent of new internet-based technologies has now brought organizational improvement to within the grasp of even the chronically disorganized (as well as the people who are only mildly disorganized).
By applying these kinds of technologies to get more organized in each of the three key areas (communication, accountability, and sample/supply tracking), I have noticed significant improvements in efficiency.
In the next few articles, I’m going to cover some of the tools that I’ve discovered that can turn your lab from an inefficient, rusty machine into a well-oiled, efficient machine that cranks out work more quickly, and helps you keep ahead of the competition. It should easily help you become 20% more efficient. Stay tuned!
p.s. – Comments are not FDA approved, so it could kill you to leave one. But if you’re the daredevil type, I dare you to go ahead and try.